Eunan O'Halpin. Spying on Ireland: British Intelligence and Irish Neutrality During the Second World War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. 380 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-925329-6.
Reviewed by Bruce Thompson (University of California, Santa Cruz)
Published on H-Diplo (December, 2009)
Commissioned by Christopher L. Ball (DePaul University)
British Espionage and Irish Neutrality
Fifty years ago Gordon A. Craig, one of the masters of diplomatic history, began an article on the concept of neutrality in international relations by telling the story of the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus's invasion of Pomerania in 1630. Intending to secure his lines of communication, Gustavus sought an alliance with the Kurfürst (elector) of Brandenburg against the imperial forces of Ferdinand II of Austria. The elector, however, preferred to remain neutral in the terrible conflict that we now call the Thirty Years War, in spite of the king's urgent plea that the very survival of Protestantism was at stake. His patience exhausted, the irascible king gave way to a burst of wrath: "One thing I tell you plainly," he warned the envoys of the elector, "I don't want to know or hear anything about any neutrality. His Highness must be either friend or foe. When I come to the border, he is going to have to blow hot or cold. God and the Devil are fighting here. If His Highness wants to stand on God's side, good! Then let him join me. If he prefers to stand by the Devil, then, in truth, he is going to have to fight with me…. Was ist doch das für ein Ding: Neutralität? I don't understand it."
Winston Churchill, when confronted with the Irish government's insistence on maintaining Ireland's neutrality during the Second World War, reacted as the Swedish king had done three centuries earlier: with an explosion of wrath. Eunan O'Halpin begins his first-rate study of British-Irish relations during the Second World War with an angry memorandum by Churchill to his naval staff, composed on September 5, 1939 (just two days after Churchill had returned to the cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty). The new first lord called for "‘a special report ... upon the questions arising from the so-called neutrality of the so-called Eire.’" Churchill sounded the alarm "about possible succouring of U-Boats by Irish malcontents in west of Ireland inlets" (p. 1). And he resented the denial of Irish ports as anti-submarine bases for the Royal Navy. With the devil advancing in the shape of Hitler and the survival of Western civilization hanging in the balance, the Irish claim to neutrality struck Churchill as outrageous. (The United States, O'Halpin shows, had even less patience with Irish neutrality than did Churchill.)
O'Halpin's book is a meticulous examination of the consequences of Irish neutrality for British intelligence during the Second World War. It is impossible to imagine a more thorough and judicious investigation of this topic. Pace Churchill, O'Halpin demonstrates that Irish neutrality, far from posing a threat to Britain's war effort, actually offered significant advantages. The Irish Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera (whom Churchill detested), stuck by his commitment that Ireland would not allow its territory to become a base of operations directed against Britain by hostile powers. Britain's Security Service (MI5) cooperated closely with Ireland's military intelligence unit (G2) on security issues throughout the war, thwarting efforts by the Germans to plant agents in Ireland and to use their legation in Dublin as a base for espionage.
For de Valera and his colleagues, neutrality was both the fruit of Eire's hard-fought independence and, in light of the abject failure of the collective security provisions of the League of Nations during the 1930s, the safest policy for a small country. Nor could de Valera contemplate an overt alliance with the United Kingdom as long as the partition of Ireland remained in effect. Churchill attempted to squeeze the Irish with a partial blockade of fuel and other supplies, but this tactic served only to increase de Valera's popularity. To Churchill's consternation, de Valera's policy of neutrality enjoyed widespread support throughout the country, not only among de Valera's supporters but also within the ranks of his political opponents.
But British security professionals quickly came to appreciate the value of cooperation with their Irish counterparts. That cooperation proceeded on multiple levels, from coast-watching and postal censorship to counter-espionage. The Irish captured German agents, shared information with British military intelligence officials, and virtually dismantled the Irish Republican Army (IRA) for the duration of the war. After the initial panic about U-boats, IRA subversion, and a possible German invasion of Ireland had subsided, the thorniest issue was the presence of a clandestine radio in the German legation. But here too the Irish offered cooperation, compelling the legation to disgorge the radio in December 1943. Meanwhile British intelligence profited from the opportunity to decode the cable traffic of the Axis missions in Dublin and of Irish representatives in Axis capitals. The benefits of Irish neutrality were so obvious that MI5 and Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) managed to shut down planning for Special Operations Executive's black propaganda and sabotage operations in Ireland before they could do any significant damage to the delicate fabric of British/Irish relations. Ireland's voluntary contribution to the war effort under the banner of neutrality was, MI5's Cecil Liddell concluded, almost certainly greater than any benefit the British could have received by preemption or coercion.
O'Halpin suggests that "the main problem arising from Irish neutrality by the end of 1942 was no longer a strategic one--Irish defenselessness, and the denial of port and air facilities to Britain and her new and somewhat overbearing ally the United States--but a security issue: how could the leakage of war information through Ireland be minimized?" (p. 213). As the Allies began to gain ground against the Axis powers, the continued effectiveness of strategic deception efforts and the security of planning for Operation Overlord became the principal concerns. O'Halpin is able to tell this story in intricate detail, drawing on recently released intelligence files in both Britain and the United States, and comparing the Irish case to that of other neutral countries.
Having begun with Churchill's response to Irish neutrality, O'Halpin concludes with him as well: “Churchill's treatment of wartime intelligence concerning Ireland does not add much luster to his reputation as a politician with a particular understanding of the secret world and its secret sources.... Churchill nursed a personal grievance against Ireland, as a back-stabbing dominion and former British possession, which he did not have against any other European neutral, despite the fact that Switzerland, Sweden, the two Iberian dictatorships, and Turkey all maintained close economic relations with the Axis powers until very late in the day, and that Sweden, Switzerland, and Spain all provided significant military and intelligence assistance and concessions to Germany” (p. 305).
The magnanimity that Churchill showed so often in his long career deserted him in the case of Ireland. Here the very qualities that made him so effective in the crisis of 1940, his pugnacity and his fierce determination to assert his will, served him poorly in a context that called for tactful negotiation. O'Halpin's brilliant study of the cooperation between British and Irish intelligence and security agencies shows that even in the dire circumstances of a war between civilization and barbarism, the ambiguity of neutrality had its uses.
. Gordon A. Craig, "Neutrality in the Nineteenth Century," in War, Politics, and Diplomacy: Selected Essays (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966),143-144.
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Bruce Thompson. Review of O'Halpin, Eunan, Spying on Ireland: British Intelligence and Irish Neutrality During the Second World War.
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